Criticism and “The Essence of Contemporary Asian Art”

Lee Weng Choy on emerging discourses that stake as well as contest claims about what "Asia" might mean.


Not too long ago Claire Hsu corrected a typo I made in some publicity materials—instead of Asia Art Archive, I mistakenly wrote Asian Art Archive. It's a typo that happens frequently, I'm sure, and I wonder if Claire has become somewhat resigned to it happening again and again despite her constant corrections. Nonetheless, it's a distinction worth maintaining. More recently, Chen Kuan-Hsing and Chua Beng-Huat, the Co-Editors of the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies journal, explained at a seminar why, for the name of their publication, they deliberately chose the words "inter" and "Asia," instead of "intra" and "Asian." So what is this difference between "Asia" and "Asian"? Obviously, the former is a noun while the latter is an adjective, but more than that, "Asian" as an adjective often characterises something as Asian in its essence—for instance, "filial piety is an Asian value," "feminism is not part of Asian culture," and so on. Whereas the term "Asia," at least in Kuan-Hsing's and Beng-Huat's usage, signifies a deliberately complex, contested and constructed site. In their purview, "Asia" is not definitively bounded by geography; that is why they do not say "intra-Asia." Their journal is not so much interested in what happens within the borders of this region called Asia. Their concern is for what happens across many different "Asias"—just as the word "international" presumes many different nations. Furthermore, their use of "Asia" does not denote any cultural essences, either common throughout the region or located in one or another "Asian" society. Rather, it signals emerging discourses that stake as well as contest claims about what the idea of "Asia" might mean.

If critical discourse, like the stuff of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, resists the conceptual foreclosures signified by terms like "Asian," marketing discourse, in contrast, has a preference for trading in essentialisms. Nearly ten years ago, in 1995, the now defunct Tresors International Art Fair held its third rendition in Singapore. Tellingly, it was not the Chairman of the National Arts Council, or the Minister for the Arts, but the Singapore Minister of Finance who opened the event. For the first time, Tresors had a theme: "Orientalism: 3,000 Years of Art and Influence from Asia." The organisers, I assume, were not aware of Edward Said's famous book. One of the major texts of post-colonial studies, Orientalism problematised the discourses that emerged in the era of colonialism, and which continue till this day to represent "Others" in ways that control, manipulate and incorporate them. Fast forward to today: the title of my text makes a reference to "Art Singapore 2004"; now in its fourth round, it bills itself as "The Contemporary Asian Art Fair." This year it featured, alongside a regional art fair at the Suntec Convention Centre, a series of talks entitled "The Essence of Contemporary Asian Art."

The differences between "Asia" and "Asian" are not merely semantic; there are political-economies at stake. Consider, on the one hand, a bazaar which traffics in the commodification of art: at the 1995 Tresors, US$500 million worth of antiques and fine art were up for sale. Whereas, on the other hand, the Asia Art Archive, as its core activity, does not proffer any products for transaction. It may appear all too idealistic, but the Archive does indeed aspire to develop an open access collection of knowledge about art from Asia. I don't mean to simply demonise "trade" and valorise "knowledge," as if the two were so clearly separable realms of social production. To be sure, I have a fundamental opposition to the commodification of art and to essentialisms—and such views are well-rehearsed in critical discourses. My point in staking them again, of insisting upon an oppositional stance here, is because it troubles me how much the voices of critical engagement in Asia are drowned out by the hype and marketing. Far too often it seems that artwriters make their endorsements less from a deep conviction in the art itself, than from some problematic desire or obligation to promote our own "Asian" art.

Consider, for example, Singapore's participation in the Venice Biennale. Since its first national pavilion in 2001, Singapore has joined in the Biennale hype, repeatedly touting that "we have arrived" at the world's most important contemporary art event. This is to be expected. Venice is a high profile event. However, Singapore's selection was made by the national organisers, and so the representation demonstrates less the international recognition of Singapore's artists—that is amply manifest by the frequency with which they get invited to internationally curated exhibitions—than the purchasing power of the government. Not many "small" countries participating in Venice can afford the SGD$700,000 that the National Arts Council and National Heritage Board spent on the three artists for the 2003 exhibition. This sum includes the SGD$100,000-plus for renting the pavilion venue. Yet, after all the investment, there doesn't seem to have been that much local impact. The lack of discussion and debate in the local media about something purportedly so significant is revealing. I noticed two reports in the main English-language daily, a short review in the city's only arts magazine (which has since folded) and another review in the quarterly Vehicle. There were also reports in the Chinese, Malay, and Tamil media. What was missing was in-depth criticism. In comparison, the 2001 exhibition, besides generating reviews, was the subject of at least one medium-length critical essay (by Kevin Chua, published in the book series focas, Forum On Contemporary Art & Society, no. 3).

The first Straits Times report on Singapore-Venice 2003 reads like a press release. Then, in her follow-up article, Teo Pau Lin, the journalist assigned to cover the "world's oldest and most important international visual arts event," confesses she is an "arts-idiot." She found herself "mysteriously moved by some exhibits," but others she'll remember only because she found them "utterly ridiculous." She concludes her demonstration of "art-idiocy" by saying: "even I could be an artist...For my artistic debut, I could hire a space somewhere and do a 21-burp salute to anyone who enters....I can't believe it's that simple." One would think that if the country's main newspaper didn't have any of its artwriters available to cover the Biennale, since the Singapore Arts Festival was concurrently in full swing, then they could easily have hired an experienced free-lance artwriter like Iola Lenzi to do the job. Although, speaking of Lenzi, what her Arts Magazine review reads like is a well-written press release. (This isn't to say she doesn't, in general, engage in criticism; I'm taking issue with this text in particular.) Not having seen the Singapore-Venice extravaganza myself, I can't definitively disagree with Lenzi. What I can say is that, given her rhetoric and what I know of the three artists—Tan Swie Hian, Heman Chong, Francis Ng—I distrust her commentary.

And what about "Singapore Art 2004"? I attended only one of the series of talks on "The Essence of Contemporary Asian Art." The four panelists I know to be interesting people—they just didn't have a chance to say anything in their one brief hour (keeping it to one or two speakers would have been better). If it's important to reiterate a principled opposition to the hard sell of art bazaars, then it's equally important to come to the event willing to test one's position against the experience. For me, one crucial consideration is whether I saw any art that I would want to write about. I didn't. Although, for the organisers, critical appreciation may be the least of their concerns; their worry is whether they made money. Moreover, many contemporary art organisations feel it's necessary to find ways of intervening in art markets. Plastique Kinetic Worms, perhaps Singapore's best known artist-run space and the publisher of Vehicle, rented a booth in "Art Singapore 2004." Yvonne Lee, the Director, said:

The first time PKW took part it was something of an experiment. It was also an opportunity to drum up some interest for PKW. The artists involved each contributed SGD$150 to "buy" an empty box to create a work for the fair. The concept worked and even though we managed to raise enough money to pay for the rental of the booth, sales couldn't cover the expenses chalked up during the fair. It is definitely beneficial to be able to participate. Unfortunately, PKW is an organisation that doesn't work the way many commercially driven galleries do. We were pleasantly surprised to hear from the organiser of the fair that this year PKW got a sponsor. If not for them, we wouldn't take part this year.

Bottom-lines aside, another question is whether fairs are a good way to publicise art from Asia. Of course, there is no single best way, but I'm not a full-fledged relativist either. I do not agree that every means contributes to the bigger picture equally. As anyone who's worked in the arts painfully knows, it's a struggle to compete for limited resources and audiences. It's not a zero-sum game, but one cannot avoid prioritising. I would also insist on maintaining the distinction between publicity and criticism. The former defines the public in terms of the bigger or wealthier the better, whereas the latter endeavours to deepen and transform art's publics. One hears meta-critiques that art criticism is becoming just high-end PR—I once suggested so myself—but if I actually believed that critical thinking ultimately ends up completely appropriated, then I wouldn't be writing.

People who write about art from Asia have a difficult responsibility. The significance of art from Asia cannot simply be because it is Asian; it must be good. Good art, however, is not essentially good; art doesn't entirely speak for itself—critics may be asinine, yet as a class they are not redundant—and not everyone will recognise the same qualities in a work, or agree about judgements about art. Difficult as it is to argue why some work is good—and how one defends what is good cannot be ideologically neutral—that is the task of art criticism. Even though reading about art is absolutely important to me, my own art education comes first and foremost from encounters with artists, and I've had a pretty good education in Singapore. However, like any other place on the planet, most of the art that gets produced here isn't what I'd consider very good. Art is very hard to do well. Some of it is all right but not very good, and a lot o f it is pretty bad. As Artistic Co-Director of The Substation arts centre, my job is to support the process of making art. We encourage risk-taking, and sometimes things don't work out. That's the whole process, and it's essential to support the whole process. As an art critic, however, I have to think very hard when choosing to write about one thing rather than another. The late Kuo Pao Kun, the founder of The Substation, once said, better a worthy failure than a mediocre success. I fully agree with him there. Critics shouldn't be doing copy-writing for mediocre successes in Asian art.



LEE Wengchoy, 李永財

Sat, 1 May 2004
Art Writing Diaaalogue